Amid worries that the London property market was being “skewed by laundered money”, Britain may have begun what is regarded as a major crackdown on corrupt foreigners laundering their ill-gotten gains in estimated at a princely £170 million of “dirty money” into London.
A special unit of the National Crime Agency (NCA) set up in June particularly identified Nigerians as suspects in the 25 cases under investigation involving multi-million-pound homes in London’s most expensive districts.
The cases of “international corruption” are being carried out with overseas law enforcement agencies and all assets had been frozen under court orders, Donald Toon, the NCA’s director of prosperity, told British newspaper the Evening Standard, in an interview.
“We have 25 live investigations for international corruption,” he said, adding that already, two persons have been jailed for nine years in a £5 million money laundering case.
He said many of the probes involved multiple suspects, confirming that citizens of Nigeria — which has had a “very fundamental problem with corruption,” were among those under investigation.
Some of the suspected dirty money is held elsewhere in Britain or overseas, but the agency — dubbed Britain’s FBI — said much of it was in London, invested in property or other assets. It also plans to target the use of corruptly obtained money to buy “high-value residential property in the areas where the lights aren’t on”.
Toon vowed to intensify the purge on corrupt foreign investors when new powers come into effect, predicting that the reforms would include “unexplained wealth orders.” This would require that suspects prove the source of their wealth, while compelling owners of overseas companies used to buy homes to reveal their identities, thereby having a “visible effect” on the London property market, including a dip in prices or demand for prime properties.
Toon also said the NCA had referred several lawyers to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for allegedly being lax and unprofessional over their legal duty to alert authorities to suspicious financial dealings by their clients. Professionals from other occupations such as accountancy have also been referred to their regulators.
“I don’t think we are in the situation of bursting a property bubble — there are lots of good reasons for people to have property in London — but one would hope there will be a visible effect. That could be just as much about changes in the level of demand as much as price,” he said.
“When you are looking at properties and you can see them being bought by people suspicious through crime, when you see people who are under investigation in their own countries for corruption, there is something here that is having an impact.”
He said the introduction of unexplained wealth orders, in a Criminal Finances Bill going through Parliament, would make it easier to seize assets from foreigners in cases where it was difficult to obtain evidence overseas.
“I expect the numbers [of court orders] to be small, particularly in the international corruption arena. But the values will be significant — multi-millions. We are talking about high-value residential property in the areas where the lights aren’t on because no one is living in the houses or the apartments.
“It’s the classic, non-European PEP [politically exposed person] identified as the owner of a significant property in London — £5 million to £6 million — [and] no visible means by which they have been able to fund it. That’s the point at which we are off to the High Court and seeking an unexplained wealth order.”
Toon said proposals to force overseas companies to reveal their ultimate “beneficial owner” would assist law enforcers, along with plans for British crown dependencies to set up company ownership registers and give law enforcers access to them.
On protecting London’s reputation, he said: “You can for a period of time bring in money and not care whether it’s proceeds of crime, proceeds of corruption, but how long do you continue before people start to say this is a dodgy jurisdiction and then you see business go elsewhere?”
Toon acknowledge the cooperation of banks in the fight, as they helping to curb corruption by filing large numbers of “suspicious activity reports” about clients.
Campaign groups such as Transparency International have long complained that secrecy over property ownership and other regulatory weaknesses have made it too easy to use London property and the City as vehicle for laundering criminal profits.
“It is about making life more difficult for those dealing in or owning criminal money,” he added.